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Backward Planning, Adult Learning Theory, and the Learning Actions Model

Over the past few years I have been working on the theory that learning IS a behavior – in other words, not only does learning lead to behavior changes (as classically believed), but learning requires learners to take actions (behaviors) that allow them to learn. To be clear, the idea that learning IS a behavior is not quite the same thing as active learning, which is understood to be a cognitive concept. My work instead suggests that there are physical (and necessary) actions that learners must take to support the learning process.

Once you acknowledge that learning IS a behavior then you should immediately recognize a new universe of greater complexity that challenges learning and teaching. For everything we know about adult learning theory, there is little doubt that behavior change has got its own challenges – you’d be hard pressed to find someone that can’t share a lifetime of stories of struggling to commit to healthy or productive behaviors (vs the unhealthy and unproductive ones). On the other hand, once you acknowledge that learning IS a behavior then you can immediately benefit from decades of research about human behavior and behavioral economics (e.g., irrationality, mindfulness, and nudges, etc…).

My professional curiosity and scholarly exploration of adult learning theory AND behavioral science is what lead me to originally envision the Learning Actions Model and eventually co-found ArcheMedX allowing me to first establish and then extend this science over the past five years.

Connecting the dots
The Learning Actions Model allows faculty and educational planners to connect backward educational planning, adult learning theory, AND behavioral science to simplify and accelerate learning. It serves to address a critical missing piece of andragogy and suggests that learners, though self-directed, struggle to efficiently and effectively take the actions that support the process of learning. For this reason, the Learning Actions Model is both complimentary and necessary.

Undoubtedly, both the backward educational planning process and adult learning theory are essential to effective educational interventions. Identifying desired outcomes, then deconstructing gaps, needs, and objectives should point an educational planner in the right direction. Likewise, understanding that learners are self-directed, emotionally driven, and skeptical; and that knowledge is formed by connecting new information to prior experiences; should help direct the narrative of the educational content. However the long-held belief that backward educational planning process and adult learning theory are the cornerstones of education and training has proven incomplete. The Learning Actions Model has demonstrated that once presented with educational content, learners struggle to structure the information and take the actions that catalyze (and underpin) the process of learning.

During an educational experience – whether live, online, mentored, or even informal – a learner must take notes, set reminders, search for related information; and they must do so in a way that mitigates extraneous load – but they don’t. We have now demonstrated this reality across tens of thousands of learners.

Here is your take-away message: Learners desperately need help learning. They try, they struggle… and our educational interventions rarely achieve our desired results. As with so many of the behavioral struggles we each face, as learners we don’t always make the right choices or take the right actions at the right time. In short, learners need to be nudged to take action, to have their attention reset, to be made mindful of what is ultimately most important. We can no longer assume that these ‘learning moments’ are natural, or intuitive, or conspicuous – they aren’t.

Without the Learning Actions Model shaping the learning experiences we plan, develop, and deliver; we are relying on a learner skillset that we have demonstrated IS NOT readily available.

Without the Learning Actions Model shaping the learning experiences we plan, develop, and deliver; we are (in)effectively operating with one arm tied behind our back.

Instead, once we commit to connect the backward educational planning process and adult learning theory to the Learning Actions Model we now have three cornerstones to build on.

Brian S McGowan, PhD

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Brian is a research scientist and educational technologist. He helped transform Pfizer’s Medical Education Group and previously served in educational leadership roles at HealthAnswers, Inc.; Acumentis, LLC.; Cephalon; and Wyeth. He taught graduate medical education programs at Arcadia University for 10 years. Dr. McGowan recently authored the book "#socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare" and has been invited to speak internationally on the subject of information flow, technology, and learning in healthcare.

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